Alanah Eriksen

Alanah Eriksen is the New Zealand Herald's property reporter, and assistant chief reporter.

Celebrity honours cost $250,000

Politicians support practice of handing out degrees to dignitaries from home and abroad.

Critics say honorary degrees, such as the one awarded to All Black captain Richie McCaw, are a publicity stunt overshadowing the achievements of graduating students. Photo / Richard Robinson
Critics say honorary degrees, such as the one awarded to All Black captain Richie McCaw, are a publicity stunt overshadowing the achievements of graduating students. Photo / Richard Robinson

New Zealand universities have spent more than $250,000 dishing out honorary degrees to celebrities and visiting dignitaries, a Herald investigation into the eight institutions has found.

It's enough to fund the first year of a medicine, teaching or law degree for 50 students.

Critics in the UK have labelled the practice of awarding the degrees a publicity stunt and say they overshadow the achievements of graduating students, but politicians in this country support the practice.

As the country's next leaders look forward to donning their robes at graduation after years of study, the ceremonies will also be used by the country's eight universities to showcase some of the famous faces they have chosen to honour with degrees.

Over the past 10 years, thousands has been spent on travel, accommodation, hospitality, regalia and printing of certificates.

Recipients have included the Topp Twins, All Black captain Richie McCaw, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, his screenplay writer partner Fran Walsh, musical brothers Neil and Tim Finn, Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera, Oscar-winning Weta special effects master Richard Taylor, Olympic gold medallist Peter Snell and former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and Helen Clark.

The late author Margaret Mahy, singer Sir Howard Morrison, mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and former All Black captain Sir Wilson Whineray have also received them. Visiting heads of state, former Irish President Mary McAleese and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi were also recipients.

Soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is a serial collector with honorary degrees from the Auckland, Victoria and Waikato universities as well as several from overseas institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Chicago, Bath, Dundee, Durham, Nottingham, Sunderland and Warwick.

Some of the recipients fund courses at the universities they have received degrees from, such as Owen Glenn, who in 2002 donated $7.5 million to the University of Auckland for the development of the business school.

Singaporean businessman Lee Seng Tee, who has funded a lecture series in Antarctic studies at Victoria University, was made a Doctor of Literature by the institution. And Sir Eion Edgar funded the University of Otago Edgar Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research in 2003, the same year he was made a Doctor of Law there.

World Cup-winning former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry was awarded an honorary doctorate in education from the University of Canterbury last month. But the costs are not included in the Herald investigation as a request for information from New Zealand's eight tertiary institutions was made beforehand.

Some universities conferred the degrees at their main student graduation, while others held separate ceremonies. Two universities refused to give full costs, but using the information that was provided, at least $259,279.70 was spent.

The University of Auckland was the biggest spender with about $94,500 used for ceremonies for 27 people. Grant Wills, executive officer for the office of the vice-chancellor, defended the cost.

"The benefits the university typically receives from an honorary degree recipient over the years they contribute to the university far outweighs the comparatively minimal costs of their ceremony.

"A recipient of our honorary doctorate must have had an intimate association with the university, or be academically distinguished, or have shown a strong interest in the wellbeing of the university by benefactions or other means of support.

"An exception to these criteria arises when a person of international repute is visiting the university in an official capacity. Such persons have included visiting heads of state and, by their visit, they have honoured the university in a very public way."

Separate ceremonies were held as it was "too impersonal" to group them with normal graduation ceremonies, which drove up the costs, he said.

"Our honorary graduates are exceptional people. They do not overshadow graduates' achievements, rather they complement and support the achievements of our graduates.

"Most recipients of an honorary degree will have spent many years contributing to the university - sometimes three or more times the period a typical undergraduate will spend before graduating.

"Some, but by no means a majority, will also have contributed financially to the university. Their donations may have provided new facilities for students, or funded equipment which has extended students' skills. They may have contributed to the funding of a new position which will help future students learn new skills or expand into totally new careers."

Waikato University was also a big spender with at least $67,075. But the figure provided only represented costs for six degrees which were given out at ceremonies off campus after 2008. There were a further 33 awarded that were not calculated.

The most expensive ceremony was held in Tauranga for former Port of Tauranga chief executive Jon Mayson at $23,290.

Victoria University gave out the most honorary degrees with 63, and spent $56,834, which helped pay for flights for seven dignitaries coming from either Canada, the US or Australia.

Just over $16,000 was spent flying Lower Hutt-born lawyer and author Peter Hogg from Canada, where he now works.

Massey University was the only institution which refused to give any costs.

A spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said that in 2011 the total revenue of New Zealand's universities was $3.2 billion. The $250,000 over 10 years was about $25,000 a year which equated to 0.00078 per cent of the nationwide annual turnover.

"Universities worldwide have long given out honorary degrees as their way of recognising outstanding achievements by individuals.

"Universities are autonomous and responsible for managing their own affairs, including operational costs. Like all other businesses in the current climate, universities need to look closely at their costs and expenditure, and be able to justify their spending."

David Clendon, the Green Party spokesman for tertiary education, said he was supportive of honorary degrees but had heard of resentment when a recipient had added the honorific Dr to their name, which was "inappropriate for such an award", he said.

"The question of whether they are conferred at graduation ceremonies or at a stand-alone function again is a bit dependent on context - generally speaking it makes sense to add these to a general graduation ceremony. But I have on occasion seen them awarded at times that recognises a milestone in the recipients's life - retirement, moving to a new role, their geographic location, i.e. living somewhere or being recognised by a community where there is no tertiary institution.

"I presume that the cost of these awards is covered by a specific budget line, the appropriateness of the level of spend is really a matter for each university, its governing body and stakeholders to consider."


Honorary degrees

Auckland University

27 awarded
Costs: About $94,500
Recipients include: Helen Clark, Owen Glenn, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Waikato University

39 awarded
Costs: $67,075+ (only calculated six ceremonies)
Recipients include: The Topp Twins, Neil and Tim Finn, Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Howard Morrison, Sir Wilson Whineray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Victoria University

63 awarded
Costs: $56,834.70
Recipients include: Witi Ihimaera, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi

Lincoln University

20 awarded
Costs: $18,240
Recipients include: Richie McCaw, Sir Bob Charles, Sir Wilson Whineray, Allan Hubbard

Otago University

28 awarded
Costs: $13,050
Recipients include: Former Irish President Mary McAleese, Cilla McQueen

Auckland University of Technology

13 awarded
Costs: About $9100
Recipients include: Sir Don McKinnon, Michael Moore

University of Canterbury

32 awarded
Costs: $480 for calligraphy (refused to give other costs)
Recipients include: Michael Moore

Massey University

44 awarded

Costs: Refused
Recipients include: Sir Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Sir Richard Taylor, Sir Peter Snell, Jim Bolger

Total: $259,279.70+

- NZ Herald

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